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Rush to Judgment?

Wednesday's kamikaze coverage of Terrell Owens' latest misadventure begs the question of whether people really live or die with what the Dallas Cowboys do or don't do.

Although totally unscientific, an NBC 5 online survey on the day's events and non-events perhaps should serve as a window on the real world.

"Do you think Terrell Owens tried to commit suicide?" the station asked. As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, these were the answers:

Yes -- 122 (14%)
No -- 234 (27%)
I don't care -- 525 (60%)

Channel 5 also spotlighted the poll on some of its newscasts, perhaps prompting some viewers to laugh out loud. "I don't care" likely won't be reflected in Wednesday's local newscast ratings, which should spike upward. But some viewers perhaps quickly wearied of hyped-up logos such as "T.O. Turmoil" (on CBS 11) and "T.O. Troubles" (NBC 5). Suddenly lost in the T.O. shuffle was consummate gentleman and golf legend Byron Nelson, whose death at age 94 Tuesday prompted well-deserved tributes on all the stations. What a contrast the two of them make. But Nelson's impending funeral drew scant attention Wednesday. Instead we got the dirt on Owens, all day and into the night.

Channel 8 reporter Rebecca Lopez jump-started the story after obtaining an initial police report that showed Owens saying "Yes" when asked if he had attempted to harm himself by taking an overdose of prescription medication. The report's first sentence, later blacked out, used the words "attempting suicide."

Lopez can hardly be blamed for citing an official police report as the basis for what essentially then was reported as fact by the four major local TV news stations. So the chase was on to determine Owens' whereabouts, how this would affect the Cowboys, etc., etc. Then the story U-turned when the man himself held a 2:30 p.m. press conference carried live on Channels 4, 5, 8, 11 and 21, ESPN, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel.

"The rumor of me taking 35 pills is absurd," he said, blaming his hospital trip on a bad mix of fitness supplements and pain killers that left him "kinda out of it" in his words.

Owens flatly denied trying to commit suicide, and one had to believe him in this case. You don't participate in that afternoon's practice and then seem clear as a bell just 18 hours after what would have been a big-time overdose. Nor do you get released from the hospital that quickly. And this is coming from someone who as a college student witnessed plenty of overdoses during five years as an orderly in a Madison, Wis. emergency room.

"He looked in good spirits. He looked fine," ESPN's Michael Smith said minutes after the public comments from both Owens and his publicist, Kim Etheredge, who had phoned 911 in what apparently was a panic. "It sounds like a case of where amid the confusion of a rather intense situation there might have been some miscommunication."

Most of TV's never-ending stream of commentators seemed to share that assessment after assuming the very worst just hours earlier.

We do, of course, live in an age where the news cycle has been accelerated to Indy 500 speeds. Still, times like these cry out for local TV reporters with reasonably long memories. They might have warned viewers that not all police reports are what they seem, particularly when it concerns the Cowboys.

Rewind back to early 1997, when Dallas police reacted to a shoddy Channel 5 story by releasing a police report from a woman who had charged receiver Michael Irvin and lineman Erik Williams of gang-raping her at gunpoint while videotaping the assault. No charges had been filed against either Cowboys player, but that didn't stop the police and the media from essentially convicting them. The upshot: police determined months later that the supposed victim had made it all up. She then was charged with filing a false police report that police never should have released in the first place until thoroughly investigating her credibility.

Channel 8's always opinionated Dale Hansen, who sensitively eulogized Byron Nelson on Tuesday's 10 p.m. newscast, found himself being branded an insensitive enemy of the mentally ill for much of Wednesday. He had the temerity to say that he just didn't understand guys like Owens. Nor did he relate to the so-called mind-numbing pressures of today's millionaire athletes. People struggling to make ends meet are under far more duress, he said.

Actually, Hansen shouldn't have been put in that position. The foundation for Wednesday's saturation coverage -- Terrell Owens' suicide attempt -- had all but crumbled by nightfall. And a 6:30 p.m. update of that Channel 5 online poll shows that even more people just can't be bothered.

"Do you think Terrell Owens tried to commit suicide?"

Yes -- 159 (14%)
No -- 297 (25%)
I don't care -- 713 (61%)

Guy and dolls

Brad Watson, Channel 8 news

Most boys don't play with dolls. But one grown-up male TV reporter did in the interests of dramatizing the Texas governor's race.

"It's a little like throwing pasta at the wall. Let's see what sticks," Watson said of a much-talked about Labor Day story starring a Kinky Friedman talking "action figure" and Barbie-and-Ken mockups of his three opponents. Watson went behind-the-scenes by telephone from Love Field Sunday night while waiting to board a flight to Austin for Monday's joint campaign appearance by Friedman and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.

The 27-year veteran of Belo-owned News 8 is known as a straight-ahead, impeccably dressed perfectionist who sometimes seems to have been born in a suit. But Watson went a little wild and crazy on Labor Day, with an assist from his two grade school-age daughters and one of their friends. For a look at what we're talking about, go here.

The intrepid reporter already had a Kinky action figure that he'd bought while covering the maverick candidate's campaign.

"I wanted to do something that was kind of innovative and clever...instead of just doing a campaign strategy piece that Wolf Blitzer might do," he said. "I wouldn't have done it if there hadn't of been the Kinky figure. So I wondered how we could do this without making it look cheesy or goofy. It had some nuggets of information in there and it got people's attention. The thing that's been remarkable to me is the voter apathy out there."

His two daughters, Eleanor, 9, and Emily, 7, were the principal costumers, with an assist from Eleanor's fourth-grade pal, Shannon Shiffer. First the Watson kids found a Ken "groom" doll, took his tuxedo off and put him in a dark suit and tie.

"He already had amazingly similar hair to (Republican governor) Rick Perry," Watson said.

Shannon then provided the Watsons with another Ken doll to impersonate Democrat Chris Bell. They painted his hair white. Presto.

Independent candidate Carol Keeton Strayhorn provided a tougher challenge. "There's not really a Barbie grandmother edition," Watson said.

They settled on Barbie's "Aunt Midge," described by Watson as "an older figure with an older woman's clothes, more loosely fitted, more full-figured, you might say." Her hair got a coat of white, too. Casting completed.

Watson said he had no trouble selling the one minute, 54-second piece to Channel 8 news management. On-camera, he held the figures at arm's length and also moved them around a makeshift Texas map while dispensing nuggets about their respective campaign strategies. The talking Kinky figure chipped in, too, by opining, "I can't screw things up any worse than they already are." His rivals remained mute.

Only one viewer complained directly to him, Watson said. She wondered how he dared to "depict our political leaders as dolls and figurines."

"But I got a dozen or more emails saying it was great," he said. One viewer wanted to buy the complete set of dolls to be auctioned off at a Frisco fundraiser.

The Friedman campaign predictably loved it, but he hasn't heard from other candidates, Watson said. "I've got a few more tricks up my sleeve in the weeks ahead."

Might that mean a sequel to his low-budget doll featurette?

"I suppose it's a possibility," he said. But candidates Bell and Strayhorn have returned to Shannon Shiffer's playroom, "and I'd have to ask her if she wants to part with them again."

Conservatively speaking, they loved Sean Hannity

Lame of foot and lamer in the view of a loud, opinionated SMU crowd, Alan Colmes took another verbal pasting Friday night while sparring partner Sean Hannity was asked when he's going to run for president.

You might say that a packed house at McFarlin Auditorium tilted heavily to the right and toward Hannity, who knows how to exploit such situations.

"by the way, are there any liberals out there?" Colmes asked hopefully, drawing a mini-round of applause.

"No, Allen, no liberals. This is a crowd of normal Americans," Hannity retorted to boisterous acclamation.

Colmes couldn't catch a break, even though he at least didn't break an ankle during a recent running mishap that required him to wear a surgical boot onstage.

"You don't have a leg to stand on," a Hannity fan yelled at Colmes.

It was all part of the warmup for a live telecast of Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes tied to the all-news network's 10th anniversary on Oct. 6. Dallas was the first in a 10-city stop, with a colorful touring bus proclaiming, "Thank you America. For Making Us #1. The Most Powerful Name in News."

At a pre-game VIP reception, Hannity came upon former Northern Exposure star Janine Turner, whose politics are simpatico. They both admitted to having crushes on each other before the now Dallas-based Turner asked her eight-year-old daughter, Juliette, "You know what we have on every night?"

"Fox News," the kid responded.

Colmes also had an actress ally in SMU's own Morgan Fairchild, who agreed to do Friday's show at his request. Fairchild, Turner and former Dallas Cowboys star Randy White later teamed up for a "Lone Star All-Stars" panel in the second half of the show.

"Morgan, you are hot!" an audience member blurted during a commercial break.

"I didn't know conservatives had those feelings," Colmes shot back. But he was shot down again by a crowd-pleaser from the crowd: "Why do you think there are so many of us?"

The audience also treated scandal-ridden former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Houston as a conquering hero. Both DeLay and Hannity predicted that Republicans would rally to keep control of the House despite polls predicting a likely Democratic takeover.

"The base is coming back, and the Republicans are enjoying it," DeLay said.

Before entering the lion's den, Colmes said his decade as Hannity's partner has "been a great opportunity for me to walk on a stage figuratively and do interviews with world leaders and talk about politics in a venue that's heavily watched. It's a dream job. There's no better place to do it."

Others see him as Hannity's hapless punching bag, but Colmes said that "more independents and Democrats watch us than the other two (cable news) networks combined because of the size of our audience...We have a large number of people of all political stripes watching us and working at Fox, believe it or not. There's no political litmus test to work in our newsroom."

But Hannity has become one of political conservatism's reigning rock stars while Colmes still plays a banjo.

"I don't feel anything but gratitude for having an opportunity to work here and to really grow in this field of journalism that I love," Hannity said. "Honestly."

Whatever the political climate, "people miss the secret of the success of our show," he said. "We talk about the news. We give information that you're not going to get elsewhere. We do it in an entertaining way and we've always got a smile on our face. So that's really the formula, but don't tell anybody."

Actually he was kidding -- about not telling anybody. But it's easier to be on top of your game when an audience is roughly 95 percent behind you, which was the case Friday night.

Hannity's oft-deployed impression of Bill Clinton got big laughs, as did virtually anything he said at Colmes' expense. The latter kept on punching, though. "Bill Clinton. All right, he screwed women," Colmes acknowledged. "George W. Bush is screwing the country."


It just wasn't his night.

Mini-mom to Major Market


(Note from writer: This was to have been the first in a recurring series with the umbrella title "Tele-types: Eye-catchers in Local TV News." Written in January 2006, it was "tabled" more than five months later by upper management at The Dallas Morning News. This is the article in its entirety. "Tele-types" now will be a recurring feature on unclebarky.com.)

Being a boss in the country's sixth-largest television market is in some ways the same old story for KDFW-TV (Channel 4) news director Maria Barrs. As the oldest daughter in a brood of 13 children, she has long been an authority figure.

"I was pretty much a little mom when I was 5 years old," Barrs says from the Fox-owned station's offices in downtown Dallas. "I could change diapers back in the days of pins and cloth. I was always in charge of the younger kids. My three older brothers, of course, had no responsibilities in the home at all. But they were boys. I think that's one of the things that helped me learn to manage a little bit at an early age."

Her mom is Filipino and her dad came from a poor coal-mining family in West Virginia. They met in the Philippines near the end of World War II before settling in San Francisco, where Maria was born. The family moved around constantly, living for long periods in a school bus converted into a mobile home. It got old in a hurry.

"My parents instilled a strong sense of responsibility, of right and wrong," she says. "I didn't always agree. I've always had a little problem with authority. I was supposed to be a good example for the little kids. I think for the most part I was, until I became a teenager."

She went off on her own at age 15, leaving the "controlled chaos" of home life to work at a string of low-paying jobs. Waitressing and house cleaning weren't for her, but "I was a pretty good nurse's aide."

Four years later, she and a girlfriend sold everything they had to finance a vagabond jaunt through Europe. They parted ways in Spain after an argument, with Maria journeying on her own to Morocco for a month before she returned to California with a new resolve to chart a better future.

Loving to read and eager to write, she enrolled in journalism school at a community college in Salinas, where she met her future husband in English class. Then a representative of KSBW-TV (the last three call-letters stand for "Salad Bowl of the World") visited the school in search of off-camera volunteers on election night. It changed her life.

"I couldn't believe how exciting it was for me," Barrs recalls. " just fell in love with TV."

"A newfound career path took her to TV stations in Sacramento and Redding, Calif., before she returned to Salinas and KSBW as a full-fledged reporter. Complications with her second pregnancy led to a supposedly "less stressful" job on the assignments desk, where her managerial strengths kicked in for good.

"I found I was better suited to that," she says. "I was never very comfortable being live on TV."

After three-and-a-half years at a St. Louis station, she returned for a third time to KSBW in Salinas, becoming news director in 1991. Her hires included anchor-reporter Dina Ruiz, who married Clint Eastwood in 1996. They still keep in touch with Christmas cards.

Barrs came to Channel 4 in 1994, initially as managing editor. The station quickly switched from CBS to Fox affiliation before Fox bought it outright in 1997. She survived both transitions after promising her husband that they'd stay in one place until their two children finished high school.

"So I was not in a position to up and leave, and I didn't," she says matter-of-factly.

Instead she moved up to her current position as news director in 1998. It's a big job. Channel 4 has more local news hours a day -- seven-and-a-half -- than any other Dallas-Fort Worth station.

"I take real seriously the 'Big J' (for journalism) stuff," Barrs says. "I care a lot about serving the community. I know that's corny, but we can make a big difference. We do all the time ... I"m not at all burned out. The big thing is not to feel that everything is on your shoulders."

Her newsroom office has nodding heads on plaster shoulders. Barrs' growing collection of bobbleheads includes characters from the movie "Anchorman," Ozzy Osbourne, Ronald McDonald, Simon Cowell, George W. Bush and Steve Nash and Michael Finley in their old Dallas Mavericks uniforms.

"They just started accumulating," she says. "People have started giving them to me for Christmas."

That's not a bad way to please or placate the boss. But Barrs says she's easier on her newshounds than with the siblings for whom she once played junior mom.

"I'm not a yeller, shouter and kicker. I mean, I've been known to, but that's real unusual. I don't like to intimidate or scare people into doing their jobs.

"I really try to encourage a democratic -- small 'd' newsroom. I'm real proud of the people here. And I like them."

Name: Maria Barrs

Position: News director, KDFW-TV (Channel 4)

Born: June 26, 1956, in San Francisco.

Home base: Married to Jon Kemp, with children Patrick, 22, and Christina, 19.

Unwinds with: "Yoga. It clears your head."

Favorite book: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and "any good detective or courtroom thriller."

Favorite album: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen.

Favorite movie: "Anything with Fred Astaire dancing. And I'm sorry there's not another Lord of the Rings movie in the works."

Favorite food: Mexican

Closing thought: "I don't like the image of the stuffy broadcaster, the Ted Baxter type. There are some people, you put them on TV and they talk in an entirely different way than they do in real life. To me, that's building a wall."

Photo by Joe Kozlowski

We're No. 6! We're No. 6!

By Ed Bark
Dallas-Fort Worth is up a notch and now ranks as the country's sixth largest TV market, says Nielsen Media Research.

The latest stats move D/FW ahead of Boston, which slipped two rungs from fifth to seventh. San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose is the new No. 5 market, but likely not for long. D/FW now is less than 5,000 homes behind SF and company. Last year at this time, the margin was 19,500 homes.

So just how big is D/FW? Nielsen says there are 2,378,660 TV homes here, compared to 7,366,950 for top dog New York City. Los Angeles (5,611,110), Chicago (3,455,020), Philadelphia (2,941,450) and SF (2,383,570) round out the current top 5.

Katrina-ravaged New Orleans took the biggest hit among top 50 markets. In fact it's no longer in the top 50, dropping from 43rd to 54th place with a decline from 672,150 to 566,960 TV homes. That puts Austin ahead of New Orleans for the first time ever. It's 52nd with 602,340 homes.

Dinkiest of all the 210 markets is Glendive, Montana, with 3,980 TV homes. It's not exactly a growth center, dropping from 5,020 last year. That gives Glendive a whopping .004 percent of the country's grand total of 111,348,110 TV homes.